The treatment of prisoners of war in the American Civil War was truly horrific - Colorado Politics

The treatment of prisoners of war in the American Civil War was truly horrific

Author: Patrick Teegarden - June 24, 2011 - Updated: June 24, 2011


During the American Civil War, prisoners of war presented major logistical, political and humanitarian challenges to both the Union and the Confederacy. And, like virtually all other aspects of that conflict, the Union, for the most part, did a better job of handling those challenges. But the horror was widespread on both sides.

According to generally accepted data, approximately 674,000 soldiers surrendered or were otherwise captured over the four-year duration of the war. This total includes calculations of 211,000 Union soldiers taken prisoner and 463,000 Confederates.

Not surprisingly, neither side was remotely prepared to deal with the security, public health, or resource demands imposed by this mass influx of human beings upon already stressed infrastructures. Consequently, overcrowded and unsanitary prison camp facilities resulted in widespread disease, starvation, and death.

Of course, the Confederate prison camp near Andersonville, GA has received the most notoriety, including extensive coverage in books and movies. The camp was built by slave labor on 16 acres, later expanded to 26 acres, and was formally called “Camp Sumter” by the Confederacy.

Andersonville was designed to imprison up to 10,000 “overflow” prisoners from elsewhere in the rapidly crumbling Confederacy, but its inmate population climbed to 33,000 by the end of the summer of 1864. Furthermore, its physical design was fatally flawed to begin with. In addition to the absence of any system for waste disposal within the camp, a creek flowing through the camp delivered upstream waste from the military camp where Andersonville’s guards were stationed.

By the end of the war, 13,000 Andersonville prisoners (30 percent of the camp’s population) had died from a variety of diseases such as dysentery, scurvy and gangrene, as well as malnutrition and exposure. Although subsequent historical analysis suggests that this humanitarian catastrophe was the result of incompetence rather than intentional cruelty, nonetheless Andersonville’s commander, Captain Henry Wirz, was convicted of war crimes and executed, and other prison officials were jailed.

nfortunately, of the approximately 150 various prisoner-of-war camps maintained by both sides, suffering from disease and malnourishment became more commonplace as the war continued. For example, Fort Douglas, a Union camp in the Chicago area suffered a 10 percent mortality rate of Confederate prisoners in a single month, although Andersonville’s totals far exceeded those numbers over time.

Considerably more fortunate were those prisoners who received outright “parole,” without going to actual prison camps. Of the 674,000 total prisoners taken during the war, approximately 265,000 (nearly 40 percent of all prisoners) received formal parole papers, the terms of which required that these lucky individuals refrain from bearing arms against their opponents until such time as they were “formally exchanged” for enemy prisoners. (Years ago, when I first learned of this “honor code” concept, I assumed it was the Civil War soldier’s equivalent to winning the lottery).

But prisoner paroles and exchanges never worked as smoothly as the system’s designers intended. While such exchanges certainly avoided even greater human suffering in overcrowded camps, the system was obviously prone to significant “non-compliance,” particularly by the Confederacy.

To put these parole numbers in perspective, of the 265,000 total parolees, fewer than 17,000 (only 6.5 percent of the total!) were Union soldiers. Furthermore, given General Ulysses S. Grant’s proclivity for capturing entire Confederate armies (3), including General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, to effectively end the war, these numbers are somewhat misleading.

In addition to the fact that Grant allowed Lee’s entire army to return home (as did Sherman with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army later that month), he also chose to issue battlefield paroles to General John Pemberton’s defeated army at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.

Although Grant’s Vicksburg parole decision was initially questioned by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his top military commander, General Henry Halleck, Grant had little choice in the matter. His Vicksburg campaign to reopen the Mississippi River resulted in the capture of an army of nearly 40,000 enemy soldiers. The logistical challenges of transporting those troops up the river to a Union prison camp would have significantly diminished the fighting strength of Grant’s own Army of the Tennessee. Furthermore, as noted by Grant in his memoirs, and by other commentators and participants at Vicksburg, the paroled troops were truly defeated, and ultimately caused more upheaval to the Confederacy by being turned loose in the Mississippi Delta to wander home on their own.

After the Vicksburg victory, until the end of the war in April 1865, the parole and exchange program was, for the most part, suspended. President Lincoln, Stanton and Grant halted paroles and exchanges for two compelling reasons.

First, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with broad support, adopted a policy that African-American Union troops (and their white officers) were not to be treated as prisoners of war. The thinly disguised intention of this policy, and its subsequent implementation by Confederate armies, was to either murder surrendering troops on the battlefield (as occurred at “the Crater” outside Petersburg, Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River, and elsewhere) or to transport surviving troops into slavery. Lincoln and Grant were adamant that no exchanges would take place until the enemy agreed to equal treatment for all captured Union troops.

Second, by 1864, it was apparent that the Confederacy had nearly exhausted its manpower. Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant recognized that it would be counterproductive to winning the war to continue the exchange of prisoners back to their military units.

Thus, by the end of the Civil War, while significant war crime allegations would be made over the next several years and debated even to the present day, Grant chose to send Lee’s soldiers home with their horses and other personal belongings to get back to planting and harvesting crops. But the Civil War’s sad lasting legacy of American sacrifice still includes nearly 60,000 prison camp deaths (both Union and Confederate), and the murder of surrendering African American troops.

Patrick Teegarden, who pens a weekly column for The Colorado Statesman about the history of the Civil War, points out that the data for this column is derived from various sources, all of which are cited and reported in The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference, edited by Margaret Wagner, Gary Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman (2002, Simon & Shuster, Paperback Edition.) In particular, see Chapter 8, “Prisons and Prisoners of War.” Teegarden can be contacted at

Patrick Teegarden

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